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Environmental Factors

Thomas and Chess argued that children's temperament characteristics interact with parenting to produce children's positive or negative adjustment. Their concept of the goodness-of-fit between the parent and the child is similar to the notion of attachment developed by John Bowlby. Attachment is the dynamic relationship between the child and the caregiver. Human infants are born vulnerable and need the security of a consistent, attentive, warm caregiver in order to feel safe enough to explore the world. Caregivers give children verbal and nonverbal clues about the nature of the environment and provide them with a secure base to return to when they feel anxious or threatened.

Mary Ainsworth advanced the attachment literature by creating a laboratory measure of attachment called the Strange Situation. During this procedure, the child and caregiver are separated and reunited several times in a laboratory playroom. During the separation episodes, the child is left alone with a strange adult or in a strange room for short periods. The level of distress the child exhibits after the caregiver returns is the index of the strength of the attachment relationship. Securely attached infants will become upset during separation, but can be easily consoled by the caregiver when reunited. Insecurely attached infants will show one of two different reactions to the situation. In one group, the insecurely attached infants showed little distress when left alone and freely interacted with a stranger. In a second group, the infants were very distressed when left alone and could not be comforted by their caregivers upon their return. Many temperament researchers have pointed out that the Strange Situation is not equally strange (or scary) for all children. Very emotional or shy children may react strongly to the novel context, while very sociable children may show no distress at all. Some researchers even contend that Ainsworth's measure of attachment is really assessing temperament styles. Attachment researchers counter that the procedure measures the relationship between the caregiver and the child, which is partly a reflection of how well the caregiver copes with the child's unique behavioral style.

Many social scientists believe that temperament and parenting are both related to children's development, but in different ways. For instance, in a study of more than a hundred infants, Grazyna Kochanska found that differences in the mother-child relationship predicted whether children were securely or insecurely attached, while the children's temperament style predicted which type of reaction they displayed in the Strange Situation.

In another study, Kochanska found support for Thomas and Chess's goodness-of-fit concept. Two different parent-child relationships when the children were toddlers predicted the development of conscience in children when they were five years old. Fearful children did better with mothers who used gentle discipline, while fearless toddlers did better with mothers who were very responsive. To Thomas and Chess, healthy development occurs when parents are able to work with a child's temperament and influence their child's reactions to the world. Socialization happens and parenting is important, but each parent-child relationship will be unique because each child is unique.

It is important to note that Thomas and Chess's studies in the 1960s and 1970s were based on the ideal characteristics for an infant reared in Western society. Culture also plays a role in the fit between the child and his environment. For instance, Mary Roth-bart and others have found that parents in the United States and the People's Republic of China described their children using the same dimensions. Chinese infants, however, were lower in activity level compared to American children, a finding that has been replicated in other studies. In addition, the implications of certain temperament styles for children's development differ across cultures. Shyness or behavioral inhibition is associated with adjustment problems in the United States and Canada; the same temperament style, however, is associated with healthy development in China. What is considered a difficult temperament style depends on the culture, context, and characteristics of the family.


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Goldsmith, Hill H., Arnold H. Buss, Robert Plomin, Mary K. Roth-bart, Alexander Thomas, Stella Chess, Robert A. Hinde, and Robert B. McCall. "Roundtable: What Is Temperament? Four Approaches." Child Development 58 (1987):505-529.

Kagan, Jerome. Galen's Prophecy: Temperament in Human Nature. New York: Basic, 1994.

Kochanska, Grazyna. "Multiple Pathways to Conscience for Children with Different Temperaments: From Toddlerhood to Age Five." Developmental Psychology 33 (1997):228-240.

Kochanska, Grazyna. "Mother-Child Relationship, Child Fearfulness, and Emerging Attachment: A Short-Term Longitudinal Study." Developmental Psychology 43 (1998):480-490.

Lykken, David T., Matt McGue, Auke Tellegen, and T. J. Bouchard. "Emergenesis: Genetic Traits that May Not Run in Families." American Psychologist 47 (1992):1565-1577.

Rothbart, Mary K., Stephan A. Ahadi, and David E. Evans. "Temperament and Personality: Origins and Outcomes." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 78, no. 1 (2000):122-135.

Thomas, Alexander, and Stella Chess. Temperament and Development. New York: Bruner/Mazel, 1977.

Shirley McGuire

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 8Temperament - Three Common Elements Of Temperament Characteristics, Measuring Temperament, Biological Factors, Environmental Factors